United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
TONYA A. DAVIS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge.
has filed this action challenging the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiffs claim for
supplemental security income benefits under the Social
Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.
Jurisdiction of this court is established pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates 42 U.S.C. §
order entered March 11, 2019, the court referred this case to
a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B). On August 6, 2019, the magistrate judge
submitted a report in which he recommends that the court
affirm the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff has
filed objections to the magistrate judge's report, and
the matter is now ripe for the court's consideration.
court is charged with performing a de novo review of
the magistrate judge's report and recommendation. See 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). In the instant case, the
court's review is limited to a determination as to
whether there is substantial evidence to support the
Commissioner's conclusion that the plaintiff failed to
meet the requirements for entitlement to benefits under the
Act. If such substantial evidence exists, the final decision
of the Commissioner must be affirmed. Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Laws
v. Celebrezze. 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). Stated
briefly, substantial evidence has been defined as such
relevant evidence, considering the record as a whole, as
might be found adequate to support a conclusion by a
reasonable mind. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971). "It consists of more than a mere
scintilla of evidence but may be less than a
preponderance." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d
470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and
citation omitted). Thus, "the threshold for such
evidentiary sufficiency is not high." Biestek v.
BerrYhill 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019).
plaintiff, Tonya Davis, was born on November 14, 1972. She
eventually graduated from high school. Ms. Davis has
previously worked as a store laborer and mobile home
installer. (Tr. 62, 80-81). She last worked on a regular and
sustained basis in 2007. (Tr. 62, 233). On May 7, 2014, Ms.
Davis filed an application for supplemental security income
benefits. In filing her current claim, Ms. Davis alleged that
she became disabled for all forms of substantial gainful
employment on May 1, 2007, due to lower back pain, numbness
and tingling in her right leg, pain and swelling in her right
foot, all-over body pain, swelling in both legs,
osteoarthritis in both knees, headaches, neck pain, hepatitis
C, anxiety, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder
(COPD), and emphysema. (Tr. 244-45). At the time of an
administrative hearing on May 10, 2017, plaintiff amended her
application so as to reflect an alleged disability onset date
of May 7, 2014. (Tr. 58). Ms. Davis now maintains that she
has remained disabled to the present time.
Davis' application was denied upon initial consideration
and reconsideration. She then requested and received a de
novo hearing and review before an Administrative Law
Judge. In an opinion dated August 10, 2017, the Law Judge
also determined, after applying the five-step sequential
evaluation process, that Ms. Davis is not disabled.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.The Law Judge
found that Ms. Davis suffers from several severe impairments,
including osteoarthritis, obesity, back pain, ventral hernia,
headaches, COPD, sleep apnea, and hepatis C, but that these
impairments do not, either individually or in combination,
meet or medically equal the requirements of a listed
impairment. (Tr. 42-44). The Law Judge then assessed Ms.
Davis' residual functional capacity as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the
undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual
functional capacity to perform less than a full range of
light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§] 416.967(b). She
can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, push/pull with
her lower extremities, and climb ladders, ramps, ropes,
scaffolds, and stairs.
(Tr. 46). Given such a residual functional capacity, and
after considering testimony from a vocational expert, the Law
Judge determined that Ms. Davis is unable to perform any of
her past relevant work. (Tr. 49). However, the Law Judge
found that Ms. Davis retains sufficient functional capacity
to perform other work roles existing in significant number in
the national economy. (Tr. 49-50). Accordingly, the Law Judge
concluded that Ms. Davis is not disabled, and that she is not
entitled to supplemental security income benefits. See
generally 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). The Law
Judge's opinion was adopted as the final decision of the
Commissioner by the Social Security Administration's
Appeals Council. Having exhausted all available
administrative remedies, Ms. Davis has now appealed to this
plaintiff may be disabled for certain forms of employment,
the crucial factual determination is whether plaintiff is
disabled for all forms of substantial gainful employment.
See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a). There are four
elements of proof which must be considered in making such an
analysis. These elements are summarized as follows: (1)
objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) the
opinions and conclusions of treating physicians; (3)
subjective evidence of physical manifestations of
impairments, as described through a claimant's testimony;
and (4) the claimant's education, vocational history,
residual skills, and age. Vitek v. Finch. 438 F.2d
1157, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1971); Underwood v.
Ribicoff. 298 F.2d 850, 851 (4th Cir. 1962).
previously noted, the court referred the case to a magistrate
judge for a report setting forth findings of fact,
conclusions of law, and a recommended disposition. In his
report, the magistrate judge recommended that the court
affirm the final decision of the Commissioner denying the
plaintiffs claim for supplemental security income benefits.
Succinctly stated, the magistrate judge determined that
substantial evidence supports the Law Judge's finding
that Ms. Davis retains the residual functional capacity to
perform certain light work roles and is therefore not
disabled under the Social Security Act.
objections to the report and recommendation, Ms. Davis takes
issue with the magistrate judge's findings and
conclusions as to three of the issues raised in her motion
for summary judgment. The first issue is whether the Law
Judge's assessment of plaintiffs subjective allegations
is supported by substantial evidence. Relying on the decision
of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
in Brown v. Commissioner. 873 F.3d 251, 269 (4th
Cir. 2017), Ms. Davis argues that the Law Judge did not build
an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his
conclusion that her testimony and subjective complaints were
review of the record, the court agrees with the magistrate
judge that the Law Judge's assessment of plaintiffs
subjective allegations is supported by substantial evidence.
Although Ms. Davis testified at the administrative hearing
that she experiences totally disabling neck and back pain,
numbness, joint swelling, and shortness of breath, the Law
Judge found that the plaintiffs statements regarding the
intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms
were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and
other evidence in the record. (Tr. 47). The Law Judge then
discussed his reasoning for not fully crediting the
plaintiffs statements regarding the severity of her symptoms.
The Law Judge began by outlining the objective medical
findings from examinations in 2015, during which Ms. Davis
had some tenderness in her hands, diffuse muscle tenderness,
and limited range of motion in her shoulder, but otherwise
displayed normal grip strength, normal strength in her upper
and lower extremities, normal spinal range of motion, no
swelling or synovitis in her joints, and good range of motion
in each joint. (Tr. 47). The Law Judge noted that when
plaintiff developed joint stiffness and edema in her ankles,
it "resolved rather quickly." (Tr. 47). By August
of 2015, plaintiff "only displayed back and right ankle
tenderness [and] otherwise had a good range of motion in each
joint and a negative straight leg-raising test." (Tr.
47). The Law Judge also noted that plaintiffs "providers
referred her to [physical therapy], but she only attended the
initial evaluation, suggesting her symptoms were not as
severe or as limiting as alleged." (Tr. 47).
Judge then outlined subsequent medical examinations relevant
to Ms. Davis' complaints of back pain. On October 29,
2015, plaintiff underwent a lumbar spine evaluation at
Carilion Clinic. During the evaluation, Ms. Davis was found
to have some tenderness in the lumbar region, pain with
flexion and extension, and an antalgic gait "due to body
habitus." (Tr. 458). However, the findings on physical
examination were otherwise unremarkable. Ms. Davis exhibited
a balanced standing posture, no difficulty with transitional
movements, intact sensation, normal reflexes, and intact
motor function except for a slight decrease in the right
gastro-soleous complex secondary to ankle pain from a recent
sprain. (Tr. 458). During subsequent examinations in December
of 2015 and March of 2016, Ms. Davis exhibited normal range
of motion in all extremities and no evidence of tenderness or
edema. (Tr. 522, 527). The Law Judge accurately observed that
certain records indicate that Ms. Davis "experienced
some regression during the next several months, "
primarily in the form of "tenderness, range of motion
deficits, and episodic muscle spasms." (Tr. 47).
However, relevant diagnostic studies revealed no significant
abnormalities. An MRI of plaintiffs lumbar spine revealed a
"minimal broad-based disc protrusion at L5-S1."
(Tr. 614, 765). Similarly, an MRI of plaintiff s cervical
spine revealed only "[m]ild spondylotic/discogenic
changes, " including "some foraminal stenosis"
from a "C5/6 disc bulge." (Tr.: 757).
When Ms. Davis returned to Carilion Clinic for a
"lumbar/cervical spine recheck" in April of 2017,
after receiving an epidural steroid injection, she was found
to have normal motor function, normal muscle tone,
well-perfused extremities, intact sensation, normal reflexes
in all extremities, arid no sensory deficits or sustained
clonus. (Tr. 657-61). The examining physician advised the
plaintiff to begin doing exercises at home. He also noted
that surgery may be an option if her symptoms persist, but
that "[t]herapy and continued pain management are [the]
preferred treatment [options]." (Tr. 661).
respect to plaintiffs respiratory conditions, the Law Judge
noted that while plaintiff carried diagnoses of COPD and
sleep apnea, pulmonary function testing in January of 2015
revealed no obstructive lung defect, and chest x-rays in
February of 2015 showed clear lungs and no signs of
pneumothorax or pleural effusion. (Tr. 48, 353, 391).
Additionally, multiple treatment records reflect normal
breath sounds and/or no signs of respiratory distress. (Tr.
412, 415, 419, 420, 422, 423, 520, 521, 527). The Law Judge
accurately observed that although Ms. Davis
"experience[d] several exacerbations during the period